Taking in the Bassac Riverfront’s lost architectural heritage

Norodom Sihanouk’s vision included public housing.
Norodom Sihanouk’s vision included public housing. VICTORIA MØRCK MADSEN

Taking in the Bassac Riverfront’s lost architectural heritage

Khmer Architecture Tours’ new guided route explores what remains of Norodom Sihanouk’s grandest building project, with hopes that participants’ imaginations will fill in the gaps

The walk between the Chaktomuk Conference Hall on the south end of Riverside and Sothearos Boulevard’s White Building takes in a casino, KTVs and beer gardens, as well as a knot of construction sites and yet to be built on scrubland.

It is not, most would agree, an area of great architectural or natural beauty.

But tomorrow, Khmer Architecture Tours will be taking the first group of guests on a two-hour walking tour that will take visitors along this very route.

The tour, which organisers hope will become bimonthly, is something of a departure for the organisation because so many of the buildings that make the area significant have been knocked down.

For much of the walk, guides Kourn Lyna and Chhum Phanith will be relying on archival pictures and maps to explain to participants what they’re looking at, or rather, what they would have been looking at 50 years ago, when this area – the Bassac Riverfont – was post-independence Cambodia’s proudest architectural landscape.

“That’s the challenge,” said Tara Mar, co-coordinator of Khmer Architecture Tours. “Should that be a reason not to speak about it? We’re going to try it, and see what people’s reactions are.

“It’s a step back in time, that’s what we’re doing on this tour.”

Listening to guides Lyna and Phanith explain the significance of the Bassac Riverfront as it once stood, it’s clear to see why Mar and her team have persevered with getting this particular tour off the ground.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Kourn Lyna (left) and Chhum Phanith will guide the Bassac Riverfront tours. VICTORIA MØRCK MADSEN

The area provides a striking lesson in Cambodia’s post-independence history.

Located on 24 hectares of land reclaimed from the river, it was once the pride of post-independence Phnom Penh – a “new city” dreamt up by Norodom Sihanouk with the help of Russian architects and engineers, and their Cambodian contemporaries.

Guide Phanith describes it as a hugely symbolic project, which pulled the centre of the city away from its colonial heart around Wat Phnom. “The King wanted to build a new city. He didn’t like the colonial building style, he liked something new for Cambodians,” explained Phanith. “So Bassac Riverfront is a part of the new city.”

The complex, construction of which began in 1962 and ground to a halt in 1968, was home to exhibition halls, a theatre and social housing projects, all set in spacious gardens. The ambitious project found such favour with Sihanouk that he featured it in many of the films he directed. He would often take foreign visitors on tours.

Today, some visual elements of Sihanouk’s proud tour remain: Vann Molyvann’s recently renovated Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the fully functioning Cambodiana Hotel designed by Lu Ban Hap, and the White Building, also by Ban Hap, which remains standing – just.

Sites such as the Sangkum Reastr Exhibition Hall and the Grey Building have been remodelled beyond recognition. Other buildings have disappeared entirely, often via controversial land concessions that move local settlers off state-owned land so that private companies can build on desirable city-centre plots.

But perhaps the rapidly changing landscape of the Bassac Riverfront tells the story of modern day Phnom Penh in the same way that Sihanouk hoped it would in the 1960s.

“It’s a keyhole into how Phnom Penh’s priorities are changing,” said Mar.

As well as its unusual route, the Bassac Riverfront tour will also be different from Khmer Architecture Tours’ other offerings in that they will not be using trained architects as guides.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The dilapidated White Building is one of the few remaining elements of Norodom Sihanouk’s grand vision for the Bassac Riverfront. VICTORIA MØRCK MADSEN

Instead, guides Phanith and Lyna are local residents who work in the White Building: Phanith works with the White Building archives, and Lyna is a coordinator for Sa Sa Arts Projects.

The decision to employ non-architects was intentional, Mar explained.

“We were doing tours in the White Building, and we thought why not train youth from the White Building to do the tour.” She said the decision was twofold: allowing for better access to private residences, and training local people about the Bassac area who “have no idea what the creative vision was in the 1960s”.

But the process of recruiting the White Building community as guides did not prove to be easy. Of the 10 residents who initially expressed interest in the project, only Phanith and Lyna completed the training. Both were already involved in creative projects to do with Phnom Penh’s cultural heritage.

Mar said the drop-out rate was understandable: as well as requiring high English skills, the training was demanding and didn’t come with the promise of a full-time job. “It was an educational opportunity – that’s fine and I’m glad we did it.”

Phanith and Lyna agreed that preparing for the tour had been challenging, requiring them to absorb a large amount of information.

They were nervous about the prospect, but believed the work was important. Both hoped that if the tour proved popular, they would be able to recruit White Building residents to lead them as planned.

“We hope that when they see us do it, they’ll be interested to do more,” said Lyna. “In Cambodia, we have a saying: if the culture is alive, the country is alive.”

The Public Architecture Tour starts at 8:30am tomorrow at the Chaktomuk Conferance Hall, Sisowath Quay. Reservations are required and can be made by emailing [email protected].


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